Brands on the brain

Advertising gurus turn to neuroscience to enhance brand loyalty

by Geoff Olson

Some years ago, a US advertising company came up with a scheme for printing logos on the skins of hot dog wieners, to be sold at sports stadiums and fairgrounds. Nothing came of it, however, perhaps because hot dogs are the equivalent of communion wafers in the holy American rituals of team sports. But this was more than a decade ago; it’s a safe bet there wouldn’t be much resistance now to branding this iconic combo of white flour and offal. Advertising and mass persuasion are so much a part of the cultural background noise today that we hardly even notice the next minor assault on our senses.

In 2009 when the Squamish Nation council approved the construction of six electronic billboards on its lands in Vancouver, the North Shore and Squamish, public outrage followed. Yet the angry editorials and letters to the editor dried up almost immediately after the 11-metre wide structures went up. It seemed to be more than just mass resignation after an infrastructural done deal. Everyone shrugged as the billboards were quickly absorbed into our culture of information overkill, and became part of the West Coast visual wallpaper. In fact, on my first trip across the Burrard Bridge after the installation, I somehow missed seeing two of these eyesores.

How do you grab people’s attention in an age of infoglut? Most of us feel overwhelmed by the avalanche of media messaging and marketers are finding it harder to get through the murk of competing memes. But they are doing their best, using the findings of neuroscience to crowbar their way into our brains.

Last month, I witnessed the Olympic Torch relay ceremony at the local mall. Thousands of people milled about under drizzling skies, waving little red flags and cheering, while Muzak-like techno blasted from speakers at ear-splitting levels. Onstage, a host paced around with a mike, winding up the crowd. In a mock-excited radio DJ voice, he demanded to know how everyone felt, repeating the request multiple times when the crowd failed to respond with the requisite enthusiasm.

When the host momentarily left, some break-dancers took his place, hopping and capering in a cartoon-like routine that resembled a corporate, team-building exercise from a South Park episode. Arms linked, they sang along toOpen Happiness, Coca Cola’s hip-hoppish signature tune. A massive video screen displayed the song’s lyrics with a red Coke logo bouncing along, inviting the assembled taxpayers to join in: “The sun will come back tomorrow/There’s a message in a bottle.” The beverage distributor, official sponsor to Vancouver’s winter Olympics, was up front and centre throughout the torch ceremony and for much of the Games.

The torch ceremony may seem to have mythic resonance, but the relay only dates back to 1936, when the Nazis – who knew a thing or two about spectacle – introduced it to the Olympic Games in Berlin. Today, insiders and former athletes in host cities are rewarded with a chance to run with fire in this well branded, sentimentalized ritual. It’s an archetypal whopper with cheese. But the torch ceremony I witnessed down at the mall bore more resemblance to a hypnosis show fronted by Reveen than an extravaganza staged by Albert Speer. There seemed to be a greater chance of turning this nice, smiling crowd of face-painted kids and parents into clucking chickens than “own-the-podium” goose steppers.

Yet the ceremonial pumping-up of the mall crowd could only be sustained for so long, and an hour and half was pushing it. Even the host couldn’t keep up a head of steam when he returned. By the time a young girl ran up to the podium with the torch to light the cauldron, his voice was already registering deflation and anticlimax. “And here she is… with… the torch,” he intoned, his words descending on “the torch.”

This Olympic ceremony may have failed to launch for this witness, but there is little doubt that Coke’s expanded sports profile paid off for the company at the Games. In many viewers’ minds, face-painting tribalism and ersatz nationalism were being subconsciously spot-welded to a carbonated sugar drink.

Coca Cola is interested in what social scientists and brain researchers have to say about brands and branding and are undoubtedly paying attention to the research of Read Montague, a 43-year-old neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine. Montague was intrigued by TV commercials from the seventies, which pitted Coke against Pepsi in blind taste tests. Most of the subjects in the ads chose Pepsi and Montague wondered if it actually tasted better than Coke and, if so, why did most consumers favour the latter?

Montague turned to magnetic resonance imaging for an answer. He assembled a group of test subjects and recreated the Pepsi challenge, while scanning their brains. The results from the MRI scans verified the ads. None of the subjects knew what they were drinking, but Pepsi produced a much stronger response than Coke in the ventral putamen, the area of the brain thought to process feelings of reward. In fact, for people who claimed to like Pepsi more than Coke, the signal from the ventral putamen was five times stronger than that of Coke fans while drinking Coke.

Montague repeated the MRI Pepsi challenge with an added twist: he informed the subjects which samples were Coke. The result: almost all of them said they preferred Coke and their neural activity was significantly different. There was also activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a recently evolved area of the brain involved in higher-level cognitive processing. “Apparently, the subjects were meditating in a more sophisticated way on the taste of Coke, allowing memories and other impressions of the drink – in a word, its brand – to shape their preference,” observed New York Times contributor Clive Thompson.

That’s how powerful big brands are. They literally get in your brain.

Not surprisingly, the MRI has become a hip adjunct to neuroscientists’ research, allowing them to identify all kinds of mental states, from the unrippled calm of champion Tibetan meditators to the weak SOS signals from vegetative patients. The marketers have taken notice. With consumer spending in a downturn, they are increasingly turning to the technical tools of biometrics – measuring brain waves, galvanic skin response, eye movements, pulse rates and other physiological markers – to learn better ways to move merchandise. It’s become trendy for advertising executives to talk about dopamine and serotonin levels, with companies like NeuroFocus and EmSense presiding over a money making marriage of marketing and neuroscience.

It’s been a long, strange trip for the corporate hype-meisters, from the snake oil carriage to the electoral ballot box, with a detour through the brain research labs. In a recent essay, author Chris Hedges darkly comments on the triumph of salesmanship over substance in the last US federal election.

“We mistook style and ethnicity – an advertising tactic pioneered by the United Colors of Benetton and Calvin Klein – for progressive politics and genuine change. We confused how we were made to feel with knowledge. But the goal, as with all brands, was to make passive consumers mistake a brand for an experience. Obama, now a global celebrity, is a brand. He had almost no experience besides two years in the senate, lacked any moral core and was sold as all things to all people. The Obama campaign was named Advertising Age’s marketer of the year for 2008 and edged out runners-up Apple and Take it from the professionals. Brand Obama is a marketer’s dream. President Obama does one thing and Brand Obama gets you to believe another. This is the essence of successful advertising. You buy or do what the advertisers want because of how they can make you feel.”

Postmodern marketing hasn’t just permeated politics; it has invaded all aspects of life, including military planning and propaganda. In the lead-in to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, we first heard of “shock and awe,” an apparent sales pitch for the paralyzing effects of firepower. Another slick military term followed soon after, “The Voila Moment.” According to author Naomi Klein, VM was “likely the product of the Bush administration’s penchant for hiring advertising executives and flakey management consultants as foreign policy advisors.” She explained The Voila Moment: “That’s when Iraqi soldiers and civilians, with bombs raining down on Baghdad, suddenly scratch their heads and say to themselves, ‘These bombs aren’t really meant to kill me and my family, they are meant to free us from an evil dictator!’ At that point, they thank Uncle Sam, lower their weapons, abandon their posts, and rise up against Saddam Hussein. Voila!”

It turned out the Iraqis were less favourably disposed to a Voila Moment than the corporate mythmakers who dreamed it into being. It was all part of a well rehearsed folie à deux on the coalition side – a delusion shared by two or more people. There were also plenty of news consumers along for the ride, people who believed the Iraqis would greet coalition forces as liberators. As we all know now, that turned out to be another unwarranted projection onto a foreign people.

With the 2010 Games in Vancouver, the Olympic meta-brand subsumed the self-cancelling memes of athleticism versus fast food, and cutthroat competition versus international togetherness. The five rings are like conceptual cupholders, securing everything from carbonated drinks to foreign military campaigns. On CTV, an excited anchorwoman gushed over an air force jet’s smoke trail high above Khandahar, in the form of the Olympic rings. “It’s the profound symbol of peace,” she gushed.

In spite of western nations’ perennial wartime habit of magical thinking, most of us individually pride ourselves on being savvy to the manipulative ploys of advertising, whether its for a pop star, politician or war on terror. Consumers are certainly more cynical about advertising these days, but that has only led marketers to seek slicker, slyer ways to insinuate their brands into our consciousness, through product placement, reality television and other means.

Consider the superb AMC series Mad Men, a kind of poisoned love letter to the early-sixties advertising industry in Manhattan. The series’ characters drink a lot – one label in particular. The makers of Jack Daniel’s struck a deal with Mad Men’s producers, through Universal McCann agency of New York, obliging Mad Men’s characters to imbibe from clearly identifiable bottles and ask for JD by name. According to the authors of The Age of Persuasion, “storylines must be fashioned and dialogue steered, to make sure Jack Daniel’s is as much a character in the story as Don Draper or Peggy Olson.” A character or an interloper? I always associated Jack Daniel’s with blue-collar, southern good old boys, not career conscious executives in sixties’ Manhattan. But that’s the miracle of rebranding; it isn’t limited in either space or time.

Back in the fifties, a company like Colgate would sponsor an evening block of programming. Middle-aged, cigarette-smoking hosts came on with a tube of toothpaste or box of detergent and returned throughout the hour to remind viewers who was sponsoring their entertainment. A decade later, the era of the 30-second commercial reigned supreme and consumers got a bit more viewing time in exchange for the broadcasters’ opportunity to sell millions of viewers to advertisers. The introduction of TIVOs and other commercial-nixing digital devices encouraged advertisers to start thinking outside of the box and they began to pursue product placement in films and television shows. In the media space of television, the advertiser and viewer have long had a mongoose-cobra dynamic. It’s a game of dodge and weave, of strike and counterstrike – an adaptive war of consumer technologies.

Reality television offered another angle to crowbar brands into viewers’ minds; shows like The Apprentice became vehicles for working-in all kinds of high-end products and services, while showcasing the living, fire breathing brand of Donald Trump himself. We may have reached the nadir of this process with the airing of CBS’s new reality TV series, Undercover Boss. The plot is simple; every week, a different corporate boss goes undercover in his own company to discover what front-line staff have to deal with in their jobs. The first episode profiled Larry O’Donnell, COO of an occasionally union-busting concern called Waste Management Services. Larry saw firsthand the conditions of his workers, and, by show’s end, promised to form a committee to address their concerns.

Instead of paying big bucks for an hour’s worth of media exposure after the Super Bowl, the thoroughly unglamorous Waste Management Services got a free public relations pedicure and access to millions of viewers. “It quite literally could not have been purchased with all the money in Waste Management’s coffers!” exclaimed Nolan Hamilton at “So, the deal for you, the television viewer is now this: in return for sitting through lengthy blocks of ads, you are treated to one hour of a trash company’s employee morale boosting video, writ large.”

The second episode of Undercover Boss profiled Coby Brooks, CEO of Hooters restaurant chain. He discovers overworked staffers have to deal with public complaints that the restaurant chain “exploits woman,” and witnesses one of his managers humiliating servers with Fear Factor-like lunch-hour routines. At show’s end, Brooks reveals his true identity, telling the offending manager he must apologize to his staff. He gives another manager, a single mother, a free holiday “anywhere in the world” so she can depressurize from her demanding job. It’s a passion play of resurrected business values, and an hour’s worth of free advertising for the mammary-marketing restaurant chain.

It’s come full circle. Where companies like Palmolive or Colgate once purchased an entire evening block of programming, today’s corporations have the opportunity to become celebrities cast in their own television episodes. With corporations having the legal status of persons, it seemed only a matter of time before they would go all Paris Hilton on us.

These new marketing angles are less signs of triumph than panic; advertisers are struggling to get the attention of a new generation that has retreated from traditional media to the Internet. Phone books are failing and broadsheets are flailing. Television is broken up into the private fiefdoms of cable, appealing to smaller groups of niche viewers.

Fewer consumers are voting with their remotes – many have ditched their couch commanders for computer cursors and are doing most of their viewing, reading and buying online. As of 2005, according to former Wirededitor Kevin Kelly, there were 100 billion clicks per day on the Web, and 55 trillion links between all the webpages on a machine that uses five percent of the global electricity, with its processing power doubling every two years. Five years ago, the World Wide Web, global in scale, was already more complex than a human brain and had surpassed the 20-petahertz threshold for potential intelligence, as calculated by inventor Ray Kurzweil. Perhaps the Asimov-era sci-fi writers got it wrong. Is a super intelligence emerging on the Web, rather than a supercomputer?

The marketers may have a tiger by its tail. Every day, netizens vote freely on where we want to go on the Web and this electronic traffic may be creating something with its own agenda. Endless consuming does not bode well for the planet, but a massively distributed electronic intelligence, if it ever developed some form of sentience, would have some vague sense of self-preservation.

Not that it’s likely a bank of servers in Redmond and beyond will ever get rid of the Web’s human creators, launching a war in some Terminator “Skynet” type scenario. It’s just that we may find our collective behaviour shifted by a cultural entity that is more than the sum of its parts, something that is both “us” and “not-us.” In any case, our current way of relating to the world – in environment-trashing corporate monopolies, fiat currency and resource wars – is not a good, long-term gamble. Neither is traditional media, which is completely dependent on, and limited by, a declining model of twentieth-century consumer marketing and advertising.

The Internet may not have lived up to the dreams of the mid-nineties techno-utopians, but it is still the greatest force for the dissemination of uncensored information in history. That truth telling impulse may now be deeply burrowed into the “networked redundancy” of the beast, with mirror-sites and filesharing. Not that anyone can count out the corporate mass persuaders and political mind controllers – they have a big stake in taming the beast. The powers that bore have already sunk a lot of money and manpower into social networking sites, blogs and viral marketing, to ensure their profit-making remains uncompromised, and that consumers of infotainment are stupefied, if not stupid.

The mongoose and snake dynamic is still at work, with marketers trying desperately to engage an audience with steadily diminishing attention spans, through viral marketing and other new twists. With every click, websurfers leave a trail of cyber-breadcrumbs behind them. All their preferences, interests and purchasing patterns are monitored online and directed to marketing databases. As we voluntarily supply the most personal details of our lives on social networking sites like Facebook, we might as well be handing MRI scans of our brains to marketers who now have the opportunity to target us on a much more personalized, refined basis than ever before.

The Internet is not likely to turn into television – a laterally distributed communication system has an entirely different structure than a vertically integrated corporation – but it could still go in a Huxleyan rather than Orwellian direction and become the greatest source of distraction, delusion and divisiveness ever created. There is still the possibility it will live up to Plato’s parable of the cave, where prisoners chained behind a fire watch shadows cast on the cave walls, mistaking spectacle for reality.

If we really are building a global brain, is it more likely to have the mind of St. Francis, or Bernie Madoff? Einstein or Forrest Gump? Or will it fracture into multiple personalities? Whichever scenario presents itself, hopefully, the small altruistic acts of many global citizens, online and off, can and will have a tipping point effect on history’s outcome. As the late historian Howard Zinn once observed, “The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory.” That’s something well to remember on the next Buy Nothing Day.

photo montage: Peter Baranovsky  / original images © Radoma © Andreus |

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